November 30, 2011

Kindness counts more than we know

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Spirituality at 7:40 pm by dinaheng

My father has slowed down markedly this year. After a heart attack last year, and a recent fall, he started walking with a cane, moving at a snail’s pace. But like many senior citizens, he refuses to admit that anything has changed.

He doesn’t like driving on freeways anymore, but when I offer to drive, he insists on taking the wheel himself. He doesn’t hear well, and refuses to consider getting a hearing aid. The only concession he has made to aging is agreeing to regular doctor checkups.

It isn’t easy growing older, and it isn’t easy watching your parents age before your eyes. We’re taught to respect the elderly, but most of us forget that when they, literally, get in our way. You can see it on city sidewalks when older individuals who move slowly often stop and stand to one side, allowing faster moving pedestrians to pass them.

Why do the elderly always have to be the ones to step to the side? Because we may bowl them over if they impede our rush to our next destination.

Whenever I go shopping with Dad at his local WalMart, he always looks for the same cashier in one of the checkout lines. No matter how long her line is, he always gets into it so that he can chat a few minutes with a friendly face.

This trip, when we got to the front of the line, his cashier friend noticed that he was using a cane, but said nothing about it. She watched as Dad took the cash out of his pocket to pay for his purchases, slowly counting the bills. The cashier smiled at my dad, then strolled over to the next register to talk to a colleague there.

I looked behind us and saw a long line of impatient customers, waiting as my dad continued to count his cash. I realized his favorite cashier had walked away so that the crowd would blame her for the slow movement of the line, and not my father. When she returned, Dad paid the bill, and she wished him a good day.

I thanked her with a smile for her kindness, and wished her the same.

The elderly we see everywhere may not be our family members, but they should be treated as such. We all grow older, and one of the most valuable lessons that senior citizens can teach us is to slow down.

Life passes all too quickly every day. So slow down. Savor the moments, and be kind to the people around you. It matters more than you know.

November 26, 2011

‘A Country Christmas’ of hope

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment, Travel at 3:20 am by dinaheng

Winter may signal chilly weather to most of the country, but it also brings the holiday season, filled with the promise of joy and hope. My friend Christine, who lives an hour outside of Nashville, has often told me about an amazing exhibition of ice sculptures that is held annually at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, carved by artisans from Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, across the border from Siberia.

This year, in celebration of her second year of remission from ovarian cancer, we went to Opryland for a girls’ weekend, and were able to get a preview of ICE!, an indoor wonderland of larger-than-life sized sculptures and ice slides that kids and the young at heart can play on.

The attraction, now open through Jan. 3, 2012, is part of the resort’s 28th annual “A Country Christmas,” which includes shows with The Radio City Rockettes, Louise Mandrell and interactive events with animated characters from various DreamWorks movies.

This year’s ICE! show — “DreamWorks’ Merry Madagascar,” featuring interactive scenes from the movie — will be held in a new 40,000 square foot building on the resort, erected in the aftermath of last May’s flood.

“We used to do it in an old theater, but the flood took it away,” says Ken Groneck, special events director for Opryland. “This is our 10th anniversary show. In the beginning, International Special Attractions (ISA) approached us with the idea for the show. It was so popular the first year, we brought it back. We did generic water ice scenes for the first few years, then added the ice slides.”

By the mid-2000s, colored ice was added to accentuate the designs, then interactive exhibits, like an ice train that kids could walk through. Each year, 40 master carvers from Harbin arrive 30 days before the show’s opening to begin work on the masterpieces.

As we walk through part of the exhibit, dressed in thick parkas against the chilly 9 degrees, we catch glimpses of an amazing ice castle and giant ice slide. Some of the artisans, busy at work, stop to look curiously at us as we walk by. Others are too absorbed in their task to glance up.

My request to interview an artisan is denied, with time being short before the show opens, and I wonder how much of the reluctance is due to fear of Chinese government reprisal for any misinterpreted comments. It’s sad that there isn’t more interaction between the Americans and Chinese while they’re here to bridge our cultures, but at least visitors to the show will gain an appreciation for the artistry that comes from China.

After saying farewell to some icy “Merry Madagascar” characters, Christine and I leave  the building to get some lunch at the Cascades American Cafe, back at the hotel. Talk about change of scenery.  As we sit in an alcove under tropical greenery, we listen to the sound of a cascading waterfall nearby and peruse the menu.

Appetizers here range from a trio of artisan cheeses for $14 to Korean barbecue lettuce wraps for $16. We choose to share the low country crab cake appetizer for $18, which is easily the best thing on the menu. Made of pure crab meat with a little filler of panko bread crumbs, the crab cakes are a taste from seafood heaven.

Soup and salad offerings are fairly typical, including crab bisque for $9 and a Caesar salad with chicken, steak or shrimp for $16.  Entrees, in the $17 to $22 range, run the gamut from San Diego fish tacos and a grilled cheeseburger to a Tuna Caponata salad, with seared tuna and warm eggplant.

Chef Seth Kondor, who used to run the Old Hickory Steakhouse at the resort, is changing the menu at Cascades to center around Southern comfort food. As a result, the Blue Plate Special, which Christine orders, is macaroni and cheese with pulled pork and barbecue sauce. It’s an interesting combination, but needs more cheese.

I get the griddled Monte Cristo sandwich, a ham, turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on brioche bread, with French fries. For $17, the sandwich is tasty, but disappointingly small in portion size.  Traditional desserts, priced at $8, include seasonal fruit cobbler, Southern pecan tart and chocolate toffee layer cake.

As we finish our meal, Christine and I talk about the things we’re working on in our lives — my next magazine project, Christine’s next Humane Society fundraiser — then the conversation turns back to the things we need to do to stay healthy.

“One of the first things my oncologist said to me was to be serene, and live in the middle of the road,” Christine says. “It’s taken a long time for Americans to understand the Asian philosophy of living in the middle of the road, not being frenetic all the time, or angry all the time.”

Being a former space biologist for NASA, Christine added the scientific rationale behind the philosophy.  “Cortisol levels rise when you have anxiety or are frenetic,” she says. “It acts like an acid running through your bloodstream, and undermines the health of everything — your heart, your arteries. Constant noise increases cortisol levels, too. We need time for serenity, peace, and quiet, and in today’s society, that freaks people out.”

It’s sad that creating time for rest and relaxation can be frightening to some, since all work and no play just makes crazy, stressed out people.

After lunch, Christine and I head for the resort’s Relache Spa, where Christine enjoys their 50-minute signature facial ($145) and I get a 50-minute Swedish massage ($140). It’s hard to get up after your muscles have turned to mush, but Christine heads to the indoor pool for a swim, and I catch up with spa director Yolanda Harris-Jackson.

“While some consider us to be a luxury business, I consider us as fostering wellness in  life,” Harris-Jackson says. “The economy’s been crazy, but business is getting better for us. People are coming in to take better care of themselves because they’re stressed out. Conventions are adding new rejuvenation breaks during their meetings.”

The spa created a three-hour mind-body-spirit session that convention groups can add to their program. Sessions include meditation, education on skin care, and a yoga, pilates or stretching class. The spa also organizes 5K runs around the property early in the morning for convention-goers.

“Groups are learning that these things help with productivity,” Harris-Jackson says.

That evening, Christine and I head to the Old Hickory Steakhouse for dinner. The restaurant, which features certified Black Angus beef from the Harris Ranch in San Joaquin Valley, is in a replica of a Southern mansion.

The menu here offers appetizers ranging from escargot with Shitake mushrooms ($13) to a poached duck foie gras with lemon cornbread cake and blackberry jam ($19). Soups and salads are standard fare, with side dishes like asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, or blue cheese and thyme potatoes au gratin, served family style for $10 each.

This time, Christine opted for the filet mignon ($39) with a crab oscar topping ($14) and a tomato salad of heirloom tomatoes, arugula, and Maytag bleu charred onions in tomato vinaigrette ($12). While the salad was light with a nice blend of flavors, the filet was overdone, which was disappointing for a steakhouse.

I chose the cast iron seared salmon with grilled romaine, summer squash, and panzella  salad ($36), which was delicious. Bits of fried zucchini blossom and roasted pepper gave the dish a nice texture, and the salmon was done perfectly.

When it came to dessert, I couldn’t resist the chocolate hazelnut bar with espresso anglaise ($12), which was scrumptious. Can you tell I have a sweet tooth?

The resort has a good blend of restaurants that offer fare at various price ranges, but as our experience at Old Hickory Steakhouse shows, what you get on any given day is only as good as the cook and waiter on duty.

For example, we had a very nice meal at the moderately priced Jack Daniels, where we stopped in for breakfast before checking out. Designed to be a night spot in the evenings, Jack Daniels is experimenting with breakfast fare, and offers a buffet for $13.95.

The scrambled eggs, biscuit and gravy, fried green tomatoes, hash brown casserole and Texas toast give a nod to Southern tastebuds, with some Southern grits that had Christine swooning.

It was hard to leave after two days of eating without restraint, getting pampered at the spa, and enjoying the holiday sights at Opryland. Clearly, we picked the right place for our girls weekend.

For room rates and special packages, check out http://www.gaylordhotels.com/gaylord-opryland/.

November 23, 2011

Opryland reunion brings joy

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Spirituality, Travel, Women at 5:42 pm by dinaheng

Two years ago, my friend Christine received the shocking news that she had ovarian cancer. Thankfully, doctors did surgery immediately, and the tumor was removed before it could spread.

Ignoring the rocky economy, we decided to celebrate her continued remission recently  with a girls’ weekend at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville near her home.  Call us sentimental, but being surrounded by beautiful holiday decorations in a landmark resort that has come back from a devastating flood was particularly inspirational.

When Middle Tennessee experienced a series of storms last May, the resort and its indoor atriums were flooded under 10 feet of water and had to close for several months.  Walking through the resort today, you’d never know that guests had to be evacuated in the pouring rain as electricity failed and darkness fell over the area.

“The lower rooms flooded in the Delta section of the hotel, and people were bused to a local high school,” remembers Hollis Malone, director of horticulture at Gaylord Opryland. “It was a horrible sight to see all the chairs floating over all my plants. It was all mud. When the water in the Cumberland River went down, we mucked the place out, and cleaned and disinfected the hotel. Everyone rallied to the cause.”

More than 3,000 cubic feet of soil was removed to get the odor and contaminants out, and while the plants outside the hotel survived, much of the greenery inside was destroyed. So Malone ordered new plants and restored the gardens with 14 tractor-loads of greenery.

“I like to display different varieties of plants because most people don’t get to see them,” says Malone, pointing out various poinsettias — Sonora White Glitter, White Star, Ice Punch and more — on display for the holidays. “Artificial light makes the bracts fade, so we change them out a couple of times during the season. In the conservatory, no matter what the weather is outside, you feel like it’s a a good day in here.”

Malone’s staff takes care of the waterfalls and fish in the ponds, and maintains 10 greenhouses that are the holding ground for green plants on the property. This year, they’ve also strung more than 200,000 Christmas lights inside and two million lights in  the trees outside.

Walking among the twinkling lights creates a feeling of wonder and joy, reminding the spirit that no matter what happens, Love will prevail. In a world where daily schedules can be frenetic, it often takes a jolt — like a health crisis — to make us stop and think about what we’re doing.

Christine’s cancer diagnosis made her examine her life and slow down for the really important things. Her illness made me appreciate our time together all the more, and while we live in different parts of the country, we both resolved to visit together in person more often.

That evening, Christine and I head for Ravello, a new Italian restaurant at the resort named after a resort town on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Ravello features seafood, spices and vegetables from the area, as well as cheeses and wines from the Campagna region.

The maitre d’fromage comes by with an antipasti selection of cured meats and cheeses that looks wonderful, so we choose a few to try (price varies by selection), along with an eggplant parmesan appetizer ($12) and a caprese salad of mozzarella cheese, slow roasted jewel box tomatoes, and fried basil leaves ($11), which we shared.

I’m not a big fan of cured meats, but the prosciutto di Parma was fabulous, and the Asiago cheese was delicious. The eggplant parmesan had a nice flavor, but was not as tender as we would have liked. Both of us thought the eggplant rind should have been peeled off, which makes eggplant easier to digest. The peeled cherry tomatoes in the caprese salad, however, were outstanding with the mozzarella cheese and garlic olive oil, balsamic vinegar and pesto dressing.

For our entrees, Christine chose the sea scallops and sweet potato ravioli in pumpkin seed pesto with whipped marscapone cheese ($32), and I ordered the filet mignon, served over butternut squash risotto, with mushroom conserva and crispy spinach ($42). Both of us were impressed with our dishes.

Our waiter, a fellow named Samir from Egypt, was so attentive, he asked whether my “medium” preference for the filet mignon should be closer to medium rare or medium well. The steak was done to perfection, which is rare for a non-steakhouse restaurant, and presented beautifully with the risotto and spinach.

Christine had no room for dessert, but I couldn’t resist, and ordered the tiramisu semifredo ($8), which was made with semi-frozen mascarpone blended with espresso and layered between ladyfingers.  All I can say is… I cleaned the plate.  Yum!

Our only criticism of Ravello was the design of the chairs, which have elongated seats. They’re cushy to sit on, but we noticed that all the women in the restaurant sat as we did — forward on the edge of their seats, without support for their backs. The men who had longer legs, however, could sit back and looked perfectly comfortable.

At the end of the meal, Samir packed a little leftover box for us and shared that he’d worked at Gaylord Opryland for more than a decade. “I take great joy in serving people,” he said. “I ask God every day to tell me how I can better serve.”

Reminders of what is important in life clearly comes into our lives every day.  All we have to do is listen.

November 17, 2011

‘Breaking Dawn’ explores growing up

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 6:03 pm by dinaheng

The vampires, humans, and wolves who inhabit the world of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” may find themselves at each other’s throats, but as any parent of a teenager knows, it’s all part of growing up.

In the latest installment of “The Twilight Saga,” scheduled for release on Friday, Nov. 18, Bella Swan (played by Kristen Stewart) is prepared to give up her mortality as she marries vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). What she’s not prepared to give up is the unexpected child conceived on their honeymoon.

Helping Bella through the wedding and pregnancy is vampire Alice Cullen, portrayed by Ashley Greene, who has come to love her human friend and new sister-in-law.

“Over the course of the saga, you see the sweet, optimistic side of Alice, who embraces Bella,” says Greene. “Then you see her get a little darker and sassy. In this film, you see her planning the wedding, and she becomes the controller.”

The fashionable Alice is in her element, orchestrating everything from the wedding guest list to Bella’s honeymoon lingerie. When Bella’s pregnancy endangers the human’s life, Alice feels torn over her friend’s decision to carry out the pregnancy when  her psychic abilities fail her.

“Alice can’t see Bella’s future anymore, and the baby creates this static in her head,” says Greene, who is intrigued by her character’s ability to see the future. “I want to know everything’s going to be okay in life, and that I’m making the right decision, but if we had the ability to see our future, everyone would be constantly changing their decisions and creating chaos. I like the mystery of life.”

Greene — who is slated to star in the upcoming “Butter,” a comedy co-starring Jennifer Garner and Hugh Jackson, and “L.O.L.” with Miley Cyrus and Demi Moore — has used her celebrity to act as the spokesperson for m.powerment by mark, an initiative committed to breaking the cycle of dating abuse and partner violence affecting young women. Mark is the beauty and fashion boutique brand of Avon Products, Inc.

“I have a large young fan base, and mark came to me about being their brand ambassador,” Greene says. “I saw how involved they are philanthropically with the cause, so agreed to doit. Girls between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest percentage of abuse in relationships, and it’s important for young girls to know people are there to support them.”

The support Greene’s character gives Bella and Edward is unconditional, a choice the vampire comes to make as she comes to understand that who we are is not defined by what we look like.

The themes of boundless friendship, acceptance, finding your true self and love are all part of the process of growing up, and this movie shows a deeper emotional thread than previous films in the franchise.

“Nothing in life ever stays the same,” Greene says. “There might be a moment in time when things seem stable, but every day, there are different elements, factors, and people who affect us. Teenagers like to think they know everything, but that’s their Achilles heel.”

The actress says the world of “Twilight” captures people’s imaginations because vampires are mysterious and untouchable, yet when the characters are paired with the concept of unattainable love, or being in a love triangle, fans find much to relate to.

In this latest film, Greene’s character exemplifies a true friend.

“Friendship means loyalty, and being there through everything,” Greene says. “You’re not always going to agree with someone, and it’s your job as a friend to be there for people.”

Spoken like a vampire who knows that blood is thicker than water.

November 8, 2011

Hallmark ‘Countdown to Christmas’ begins

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Television at 1:34 am by dinaheng

Christmas may come but once a year, but the Hallmark Channel produces a holiday extravaganza of original movies and holiday-themed programming designed to celebrate the spirit of love and joy, stretching from November to January.

This year’s “Countdown to Christmas” includes movies, animated specials, the Hollywood Christmas Parade and the 123rd Tournament of Roses Parade. Kicking off next weekend’s movie offerings is “Lucky Christmas,” airing Saturday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. Eastern.

When a single mom who’s struggling to make ends meet wins the lottery, she can’t believe her luck. Unfortunately, while Holly Ceroni (played by Elizabeth Berkley) has the winning number, she loses the ticket when her car is stolen, with the ticket inside. Mike Ronowski, the accidental beneficiary of the theft, is convinced by a greedy friend to romance Holly for a cut of the money to help save his family business.

Mike, of course, falls for Holly, and has to figure out how to make things right, just in time for Christmas.

“I read the script and thought it was really charming,” says Gray-Stanford, familiar to many as Lt. Randall Disher in the hit series “Monk.” “It’s a warm holiday piece about two wounded people who have a chance to open up their hearts, and then good things happen.”

He explains that his character Mike has returned home to help with the family business because of his father’s health issues, giving up his own dream of being an environmentally-conscious architect.

“Mike was wary of relationships, and was just focusing on the family business when he met Holly and her son,” Gray-Stanford says. “Meeting them moves him forward with his dream. He realizes how lovely Holly is, and how wonderful her son is. Once the facades break down, they’re both really similar people.”

Gray-Stanford, also known for his work in the Academy Award-winning film “A Beautiful Mind” and Clint Eastwood’s “Flag of Our Fathers,” says he enjoyed making a holiday film that talks about what’s important in life.

“I think we get sidetracked with work and other things,” he says. “People are scared of going after what they want. Sometimes, it’s easier to stick with the status quo than tackle the challenge. But life passes you by pretty quick, so you have to go after things.

“I hope people see that you can go for your dream. If you open your heart, people will come into your life and really support you. Even with adversity, just have faith and stick with it.”

Gray-Stanford, engaged to actress/writer Jes Macallen, is looking forward to getting married next year.  As for his character on “Lucky Christmas,” he’s pretty sure that Mike and Holly spend the rest of their lives together, too.

For more information on this and other holiday fare on the Hallmark Channel, check out http://hallmarkchannel.com/.

November 3, 2011

Romantic escapades appeal to readers

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Women at 7:54 pm by dinaheng

If you are what you read, my guilty pleasures include romance novels and science fiction, which I suppose makes me an ever-hopeful, believe in the Universe and the unknown kind of person.

I love stories written with intelligence and imagination about heroines I can relate to. A few months ago, my sister Linda gave me a trilogy of books about the ancient Les Croyant des Trois, a magical society that lives unknown among “ordinary” human beings, written by Jessica Inclan.

I enjoyed the “Believe” trilogy so much, I went in search of Inclan’s next fantasy creation, the “Believe” trilogy, and a conversation with the author.

“The fun thing about trilogies is you don’t have to leave the world you created right away,” says Inclan, who teaches composition, creative writing, mythology and women’s literature at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif. “Most publishers like to publish one to four romance novels a year, and I write relatively quickly. The first trilogy (‘Believe’) was three books in two years, but some romance writers publish between four to six novels a year.”

Inclan, who started as a poet and short story fiction writer, moved into novels, then tried the romance genre at the suggestion of her agent. She hadn’t read a romance novel since high school, so decided to sample the current fare.

“I really liked the paranormal, where weird stuff happens and people aren’t what they seem,” she says. “I had an image of a dark, brooding man in a bar and that was Sariel (in ‘Reason to Believe’ – Zebra Books, $6.99). It was so fun not to be constrained by reality. I didn’t want the series to be a classic romance.

“I wanted it to be based in something I feel is very real, so for example, Miranda (in ‘When You Believe’ – Zebra Books, $$6.99) is a poet, and her experiences are those that many people relate to. I don’t like the romance that seems impossible. The setting and the magic is the part that’s unreal, but the people are very real.”

While vampires and shapeshifters are big at the moment, I, too, prefer the magic that blends the known with unseen abilities most of us have experienced or read about at some time or another. You know… like when you’re thinking of someone, the phone rings, and it’s him on the line. Or when you’re alone in a room, and the hair on the back of your neck starts to stand up, and… you fill in the blank.

In an age where people are escaping into their iPods, iPads, and television, it’s wonderful to be able to escape into well written literature. As Inclan says, paranormal romance is fun because there’s a kernel of truth in the story, along with a surprise.

“We want to believe there’s a layer of mystery in our lives, that there’s more than just this,” Inclan says. “In books, the mystery is revealed.”

Inclan’s mother was a librarian, so reading became a passion early on in life. Ironically, perhaps, the author was going through a divorce as she was writing her romance novels. Happily, she then met her second husband, who inspired the “Being” trilogy.

“The idea of the ‘Being’ trilogy is that these people are paired in one world that’s destroyed, and they have to find each other again,” Inclan explains. “The whole meeting someone new again fed into the story for me.

“I think there’s probably 200 to 300 people or more on the planet who are suited to us. You have to believe in your relationship and know it’s never going to be that platonic twinning of people. Love is hard work, and a choice.”

Inclan’s books are sweet reminders that love conquers all, paired with a strong belief that good will overcome evil.

I can’t wait to read her next one.